(June 21, 2015) The following are installments to the author's novel-in-progress, My Father's Coat, about a poor Italian sharecropping family around 1900 and its immigration to American. It is roughly based on the author's mother's family. New installments will appear twice weekly. If you'd care to comment, the author would be happy to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cesira Ferrari speaks:
I was born in the village of Vaglio, in the Apennine Mountains, in November 1905. When I was nine, I asked my mother why I had been born that month. It was one of those stupid questions children ask when they are bored or want to annoy their busy parents.
“Because February is the quietest month of the year,” my mother replied. She grinned and went back to mashing potatoes.
“What do you mean, Mama?”
By February, she explained, winter chores in preparation for spring are completed, but it is too early to plant. Repair work on the barn and house—which no one has time for during summer and harvest—is finished. If the men have gone off to cut wood on Sardinia, they are usually back. The snow is too deep to go visiting. February is when peasants have extra time. She giggled.
I understood none of this roundabout talk and went to ask my sister, Colómba, a prude, who sent me to my sister, Aìda. She sat me down in the barn and explained this mystery to me. I found it disgusting, but I had to believe it was true. Aìda never lied.
Unfortunately, my mother’s good humor wasn’t handed down to me. Only my brothers got it. But, what do you expect? Dàvide, the oldest boy, lived an easy childhood because he was sickly. The other boy, Edòardo, was the baby of the family and pampered. It was we Ferrari girls who worked the hardest, milking cows, feeding chickens, gathering chestnuts, and working the fields with the other families on the farm. We were sharecroppers, known in Italy as mezzadri. We grew corn, onions, potatoes, beans, and lettuce. The nearby forest provided chestnuts, which we ground into flour to make bread, noodles, and polenta. In the shadiest spots mushrooms. They were hard to find and a great treat on our table to vary the taste of polenta. We went to Berceto, the capital of the comune, 15 kilometers away, twice a year to buy shoes, salt, sugar, and tobacco. If we children were lucky, we got some biscotti.
In 1914, the same year I asked my mother that foolish question, a man came through the village with a camera. My father, Beniamino, who had an impulsive nature, decided it was time to take a family photo. The fee was reasonable, though my mother, Delfina, didn’t want to pay it. For mezzadri, cash was always in short supply. It was only with much cajoling that my father got her and the rest of the family lined up against a barn wall in our best clothes, while members of the other families on the large farm looked on and tried to make us laugh.
The photographer hung an old white sheet behind us to provide contrast because our wind-burned faces and torn clothing too closely resembled the texture as the barn’s stone and mortar.
The photographer was in his fifties, with a black beard so thin it didn’t seem worth growing. He had weak looking hands and teeth as yellow as a goat’s. He spit out his words rapid-fire, like most city people we encountered.
He made my father stand in the center. He did so, hesitantly. This was the place of the patriarch, but it was really my mother who ran the family. He was tall and thin and had a bushy mustache. In the photograph, he is trying to look stern, which was very unnatural for him. You can almost see his jaw twitching, like the muscle of a horse that stands too long in one position. My father adored us, especially his wife and daughters, though we didn’t take it too much to heart because, pure soul that he was, he was a man who adored God’s handiwork in a cow.
It was a good idea to have the photo taken: He would be dead in less than a year, having been killed by a trolley in La Spezia. He was on his way home from foresting wood in Sardinia, which is what farmers did in the winter to make a few soldi. Peasants weren’t used to looking both ways before crossing streets. According to friends who were with him, he went flying, leaving his cigar where the trolley hit him, and crashed into a street lamp and died immediately.
The photographer barked at my mother to stand to my father’s right. She wore a black skirt with a high collar and a polka-dotted blouse. Her chestnut hair was wavy. She had high cheekbones, which she passed down to all her children. Some received this trait it in the right proportions, while to others it gave the look of a baboon. She had a beautiful figure, even after several difficult births, and broad shoulders that were a gift of God and not the result of farm work, which gave too many peasant women the bulking of men. She was confident; in the photo, she is giving the photographer as much of a smile as she thought our life warranted, despite the fact that he kept shouting, “Look happy! You are the backbone of Italy!”
“Siamo il culo d’italia,” my father whispered. “We are the ass of Italy.”
“Silencio! E buti via quel sigaro!” the man hollered. “Shut up! And get rid of that cigar!”
My father wedged it into a crack in the wall.
Next to my mother is Erìtrea, the eldest sibling. Unlike Colómba, Aìda, and me, she loved farm work. There were a few people like this in every village, those for whom manure is better than gold. They churned the land and tended the animals, confident that they will have lived a good life when laid to rest in it. Erìtrea’s barrette is crooked, because even at grand moments like this, when they are about to take your picture for posterity, she preferred to water the ox instead of arranging her hair. Her name came from the Horn of Africa, where my father was off fighting when she was born.
Dàvide is on my father’s left, standing on his tiptoes. He was short for his age and would remain short. He is wearing a jacket that is too small. It was the best we had for him. You can see the garment pushing up the armpits. He was a beautiful boy, with a widow’s peak and full lips—no one else in the family had them. He was quite handsome which, in the eyes of women, made his ailments seem worse.
This makes up the back row.
In front on the left is Colómba. She is in a dark dress with lace collar and has two pigtails held by white ribbons. They frame her plump face. She was four years older than I and often worked on a different part of the farm from me. She did it without complaint; the martyr inside her was still asleep, to awaken after marriage.
Next to her are Aìda and then me. Our dresses are checkered and also have lace collars. To this day, I don’t know where my mother got the money for lace, but that was the funny thing about the mezzadri. Sometimes, even when you were starving, there was always a lira or two to purchase some extravagance. It raised our spirits. It said, “We may go hungry in winter and we may spend the rest of our lives with our ankles in mud, but we have a few possessions which are of the best quality.” It reminded us that we were above the animals.
Aìda, who is two years older than me, is standing straight and with confidence. She was my savior. She helped me from getting stepped on by the oxen, made sure I got my share of polenta when Erìtrea took too much, and once stopped some boys who were trying to touch me disgracefully in a barn. She was by my side constantly.
In the photo, I am actually leaning against her because just before the shutter snapped, two chickens began fighting, their flapping wings and bodies swooping towards me.
My brother, Edòardo, is not pictured. My mother, pregnant with him, was just beginning to show. She later said it proved that my father was right to get the photo taken because it included all of us.
The next year, when I was ten, I was pulled out of school and my daily companions became stupid cows. Every morning, I took the beasts to pasture up in the mountains. The days were long. Even now, I can’t recall what went through my mind during those endless hours. Occasionally, a neighbor would pass by, but this provided no excitement.
“How’s your mama?”
“How’s your papa?”
“Sí, un po freddo.”
My days passed like the world passes during one’s sleep. By late afternoon, when the sun sank behind the mountains and their ridges turned a cold blue, I led the cows home. I looked forward to a hot meal, even if it was polenta again. On a good night, there might be cheese melted on it or, better yet, covered with tomato sauce simmered with mushrooms.
The houses of the mezzadri were attached to one another with our barns underneath. All the girls who tended animals arrived home around the same time. We stabled them, marched up the stairs, and entered our kitchens. What went on inside their houses was exactly what went on inside mine. The men were returning, exhausted, with chores yet to do after supper. A crying child needed comforting. You washed up in the basin. You found your place at the long table. You were lucky if you had grandparents because they did most of the talking during meals. They philosophized and told stories, which was interesting even when they repeated themselves because you listened for small differences. The old people around the farm were kind and mostly patient, and why not? Their hard lives were coming to an end. In our house, we had no grandparent, so our meals were silent.
Aìda, Colomba, and I slept in one bed and the boys in another. Erìtrea slept alone, which was just as well because she tossed and stirred a lot, probably chasing sheep in her dreams. We were all kept awake by the snoring of my father. After he died, I missed that sound terribly. The silence was so thick it felt heavy on my chest. Dàvide, the sickly one, was now pressed into helping her run the farm. I think my mother was sorry she had babied him for so long.
After the men returned from the Great War in 1918, things in the comune changed rapidly. Many men realized they could make more money in factories in the cities and were not renewing their land contracts. Suddenly, the padroni were offering better terms—even paying us a little cash just to sign, but it was too little too late. The young people, especially, had seen how their parents suffered as sharecroppers and they deserted the land in droves. Even my brother Edòardo, who was only seven, boasted he would never stay on the farm.
In our family, things were changing, too. Erìtrea had met a man from Fugazzolo named Guido. He was a good match: He came from a decent family, wasn’t a drunk, and was as wedded to the earth as she. They married and went to live with his family on the other side of the mountains.
Then Colómba married Onorino Tedeschi, an emigrant to the United States, who had come back to find a wife. He was not so handsome, with his big nose and stumpy legs, but he talked with great ambition and promised my sister a better life. My mother approved of the marriage. When they sailed for the United States, Aìda went with them, in the hopes that American doctors could so something for her weak heart, a condition that ran in the Ferrari line.
My brother, Dàvide, and his wife, Amelia, were now in fully charge of the farm. They had two small children, looked after by my mother, who was ailing. Edòardo and I, along with an orphan girl who worked for room and board, helped work the land. It was about this time that I met Silvio, my first suitor.